Ball State returns 17 starters from last season's team that finished strong, winning four of its final six games. The Cardinals hope to be a factor in the MAC West again, but will have to do so without its top playmaker from a year ago. Pete Lembo will rely on a veteran offensive line and improving defense as Ball State looks to get back to a bowl game this season.
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Previewing Ball State’s Offense for 2015
For the second year in a row, Ball State must adjust after losing one of its all-time great skill-position players. While the Cardinals struggled last season to find a successor for quarterback Keith Wenning, they’re in a better position this fall to handle the graduation of tailback Jahwan Edwards (4,558 career rushing yards, 51 TDs).
Coach Pete Lembo believes the tag team of bulked-up junior Teddy Williamson, scatback sophomore Darian Green and prized freshman James Gilbert will handle the load, even though they’ve combined for 328 yards and one touchdown to date. “We’ve got a veteran offensive line and tight ends,” Lembo says. “We expect our running backs to step in and be productive.”
Not only do the Cardinals welcome back all of their starting linemen and top three tight ends, they also retain the two quarterbacks who split last season and all of their wide receivers. Sophomore Jack Milas began last season as junior Ozzie Mann’s backup, but the coaches decided to make a change at quarterback after Ball State’s 1–4 start. Milas jumped in and threw for 326 yards and four scores in his first start. But he endured some growing pains, as well as literal pain when he broke his wrist in Week 11. Mann led the Cards to a season-ending win at Bowling Green, but Milas keeps the starting job. He has two All-MAC receivers in Jordan Williams (second team) and KeVonn Mabon (third team), but don’t be surprised if sophomores Corey Lacanaria and Jordan Hogue produce just as much.
Center Jacob Richard, a third-team all-league pick the last two seasons, spearheads a line that boasts 101 career starts.
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Previewing Ball State’s Defense for 2015
During league play last season, Ball State’s defense ranked among the MAC’s bottom four in all the major categories. While the Cardinals dealt with some extenuating circumstances — free safety Dae’Shaun Hurley tore his ACL in Week 1, third-team All-MAC cornerback Eric Patterson went out for the year in Week 9 — it’s fair to say injuries weren’t the sole cause of their relative ineffectiveness.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Lembo says. “We started off pretty solid. Once the injuries started piling up, it really took its toll on us. A lot of guys were thrown in ahead of their time.”
Ball State welcomes back seven starters, including all but one member of the front seven. The Cardinals managed just 16 sacks last year, so they’re looking for more from senior defensive tackle Darnell Smith (4.0 sacks) and senior rush end Michael Ayers (2.0 sacks).
Senior weak-side linebacker Ben Ingle was a second-team all-league pick in 2013 but produced 29 fewer tackles last fall and received no honors. He and junior middle linebacker Zack Ryan have the capability to deliver more. Hurley’s solid rehab suggests he’ll be ready at free safety, while sophomore Dedrick Cromartie, who stepped up after the injuries, shifts to strong safety.
“The key here is to build more depth and more cohesiveness,” Lembo says.
Previewing Ball State’s Specialists for 2015
MAC Special Teams Player of the Year Scott Secor has graduated, leaving true freshman Morgan Hagee and junior walk-on Alex Egan battling to be the kicker. Junior punter Kyle Schmidt posted a 41.5-yard average in his first two years.
Blessed with 17 returning starters from a group that won four of its final six games, Ball State ought to be able to shrug off last year’s step back and be a factor in the tough MAC West. The key is how Milas grows into the starting quarterback role. “I’m not going to say he has arrived by any means,” Lembo says, “but he’s more comfortable out there.”